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LATIN AMERICA: Leading the Developing World in Preschool Education

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 27 2006 (IPS) - Latin America is the developing region that has made the most progress in early childhood education, although improvement has been uneven, says the new global monitoring report on Education for All (EFA) 2007.

“The region has not progressed homogeneously. Our average for (preschool) education is 1.7 years, but there are countries with an average of 3.5 years, like Cuba, and others with five months, like the Bahamas. Chile is in the middle,” Ana Luiza Machado, head of the Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), told IPS.

Latin America and the Caribbean is the developing region with the highest rate of preschool enrolment, 62 percent, ahead of East Asia and the Pacific (35 percent), South and West Asia (32 percent), the Arab states (16 percent) and sub-Saharan Africa (12 percent).

The three main challenges in the region are increasing equality – in other words, reaching the most marginalised sectors; improving quality, since access alone is not enough; and broadening social responsibility, because governments cannot do it completely on their own, Machado said.

The EFA global monitoring report, issued annually since 2002, is commissioned by UNESCO from a team of independent experts.

Education for All has six goals, approved by 164 countries at the World Education Forum held in Dakar, Senegal in 2000, which are to be fulfilled by 2015, as are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The 2007 report, titled “Strong foundations: early childhood care and education”, focuses on the first EFA goal, which calls on governments to “expand and improve comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children,” although it also assesses progress made on the other five goals.

The authors specifically examined Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programmes, which focus on supporting “children’s survival, growth, development and learning – including health, nutrition and hygiene, and cognitive, social, physical and emotional development – from birth to entry into primary school in formal, informal and non-formal settings.”

Worldwide, more than 100 million children under the age of five die every year, and half of the deaths are due to preventable transmissible diseases. Out of every 1,000 children born in recent years, 86 will not make it past their fifth birthday.

Given their positive effects on health, nutrition and scholastic achievement, ECCE programmes are a good investment in human capital, the report says, because the competencies acquired in early education are the foundation for all subsequent learning.

The short and long term benefits of these programmes make them a cost-efficient strategy to reduce poverty and compensate for disadvantages, the document adds.

“One dollar invested in preschool education generates 17 dollars in future benefits,” Machado said at the presentation of the report Thursday in Santiago, held simultaneously with the world launch in New York.

The report indicates that successful examples of ECCE include programmes for supporting parents, teaching in the children’s mother tongues, encouraging gender equality, early language development, integrating children with disabilities into ordinary schools, and transition to primary school.

Machado particularly pointed to the Cuban programme “Educate Your Children”, which has already been replicated in several countries of the region, and teaches mothers, fathers or grandparents how to personally educate the small children in their charge.

In addition, the report highlights the “Community Homes” programme from Colombia, which supports “community mothers” – women who take care of neighbours’ children in their homes during working hours, and provide them with meals and recreation.

“The report also shows that Chile has made a lot of progress, so much so that President Michelle Bachelet was invited to the presentation in New York. As she was unable to attend, she made a video to encourage other developing countries to invest in preschool education,” the UNESCO official said.

“Chile has a support system based on preschool education, but there is still a great deal to do, especially in reaching out to the poorer, rural and indigenous populations,” the expert said.

Bachelet’s video was viewed in both Santiago and New York. In it she said that Chile is “a country that has taken to heart the words of Gabriela Mistral, our great poet and educator, that ‘the future of the children is always today.'”

On Oct. 13, President Bachelet launched a comprehensive childhood protection system, called “Chile Grows with You”, which incorporates the main recommendations of the Presidential Advisory Council on Early Childhood Policy Reform, established by the president shortly after she took office in March.

“Chile Grows with You” is the first plan of its kind in Latin America, and is based on a model implemented in the United Kingdom, Planning Minister Clarisa Hardy told IPS this week. Her ministry is in charge of coordinating the programme. The main goal of this government initiative is to provide protection for children from birth until their entry into the educational system, watching out for their rights and providing care during this critical phase of their development.

This early childhood protection system will be introduced gradually in 100 municipalities in the country from Jan. 1, 2007, rising to 250 in 2008 and the rest in 2009. Early next year, draft laws will be submitted to Congress to implement the plan.

The programme will provide daycare and playschools for the children of mothers who are working, looking for work or studying, in lower income families, and also for children with special needs. Overall, six out of 10 children will benefit.

There will also be new legislation on adoption, and two funds will be created so that civil society organisations can actively participate in childhood development, through sports, culture, and community infrastructure and equipment.

A website and an observatory on early childhood will also be created, in order to monitor the protection system.

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